I'm a non-US citizen (not living in the US) wondering how the at-will employment works in practice together with the protected classes. (So my question is for pure curiosity, I don't have a concrete problem.)
My understanding so far is something like this: At-will means that anyone can be fired any-time ("don't come to work from tomorrow") for any reason, except for their age/race/gender/religion...
I can interpret this in two ways: (The examples are purposely science-fiction like in order to not offend anyone.)
1. The concrete "attributes" (<-- is this the right word?) of the employee do not matter as long as the employer does not state that they are the reason for terminating the employee.
E.g. let's say the employer is racist and ageist against purple skinned people over 202 years old and wants to fire an otherwise hard-working and honest employee only because of this. The employer will just state a made-up reason in this case (or does the at-will employer have to state any reason at all? can they just say "thanks, I don't need you from tomorrow"?)
How do the exceptions for classes protect the employee then? (Or are there employers foolish enough to be racist/ageist/... and state that as a reason for firing someone?)
2. The concrete "attributes" of the employee matter. I can imagine the law goes something like this then (again, made up examples):
- age is a protected class: if an employee over 202 years old is fired, assume that was due to discrimination unless proven otherwise (if they were younger than that, assume no discrimination) -- this snippet from the cited article makes me think so (emph. mine): age (especially over 40)
- skin color is a protected class: if an employee with purple or orange skin is fired, assume that was due to discrimination, unless proven otherwise (for other skin colors assume no discrimination)
- citizenship: if an employee with citizenship of one of these countries is fired, assume that was due to discrimination, unless proven otherwise (for other countries, assume no discrimination)
... etc. you get the idea
But if it works like this, wouldn't employees of protected classes be able to easily abuse the system? ("I'm a 203-year old orange-skinned employee from Nowherania. I will come in late every day, hardly work at all, but if you dare to terminate me, I'll cry discrimination.")
And I understand from the linked article, that the employer can still gather evidence and fire the lazy 203-years old based on that and (maybe) not get a lawsuit. But even then, wouldn't that be unfair towards the 201-year old green-skinned employee from Anywherion, who can be let go with just a single "thanks, we don't need you from tomorrow", because his "attributes" are outside the protected classes?